Training, development, and, ultimately, performance are balancing acts and processes that must be collaboratively managed when a group of practitioners is involved with the shared goal of helping the athlete be as successful as possible. Everyone involved—the sport coach, strength coach, athletic trainer, massage therapist, chiropractor, etc.—has the intention of bringing value to the athlete. All practitioners have a set of skills and treatments that they are looking to prescribe to influence this developmental process in a positive way. The implementation of treatment and training is a stimulus, and practitioners have developed their “systems” of care, operating through principles and progressions.
Drone View at 30,000 Feet
Most important to this process of adaptation are the shared principles and collaborative approach, or guiding and managing an athlete through the process of dose response and improvement. This collaboration takes time, interaction, and productive communication to be effective. It is selfish, and unfair to the athlete, for an individual practitioner to feel like they are the sole individual responsible for being the puppeteer in the progression of training and developing an athlete. The athletes themselves play a huge part in the adaptive process, and we must encourage and educate each one with lifestyle skills that provide the necessary tools and environment to thrive through the stresses of training.
Practitioners aim to recognize the countless factors that influence an athlete, and exert some control over the amazing psycho-neuro-endo-physiological chaos that ensues. At the end of the day, it comes down to the athlete—their self-determination is what ultimately allows everything to come to fruition. All the while, there is no doubt that each practitioner involved helps the framework and structure of a “care team” to form, separating the “program” into more manageable segments and placing experts in each area.
Boring Background – Science, Adaptation, Periodization, and Purpose
“Stress is a state created by the specific syndrome that consists of all non-specifically induced changes within a biological system.” – Hans Selye
Hans Selye looked at the non-specific endocrine responses of tissues exposed to a variety of physiological and psychological stresses, and developed a framework for the adaptation windows and recovery time based upon intensity, duration, frequency, mode, volume, and specificity1. There is a time and place for all types of training and treatment (some of which are never and nowhere), but when interventions are applied appropriately—based upon timing (readiness vs. preparedness) and considering volume, intensity, mode, etc. (load)—individuals respond over time and some sort of adaptation or rejection/exhaustion occurs. This is where the theories of periodization come in as well; where each practitioner looks at the calendar (macrocycle) and breaks the year into segments based upon competition and blocks of training.
Periodization is a very real thing, and is in place to provide a framework and model aimed at maximizing and cultivating the development of the athlete through the coordination of stress and recovery. Practitioners look to maximize the effects of the stress/stimulus dosed to the body, and the resilient or sometimes fragile organisms that we work with challenge us each individually throughout the days, weeks, and months of training. Rather than living in the dark ages of “no pain, no gain,” we should aim to operate with the mindset of “minimize pain, and maximize gain.”Instead of ‘no pain, no gain,’ we should aim for the mindset of ‘minimize pain, and maximize gain,’says @Cody__Roberts. Click To Tweet
As strength and conditioning coaches, we look to develop physical qualities and resiliency to enable an athlete to perform their skill at the highest level, improving the capacity to work and allowing technical mastery to flourish within the given sport or discipline. This sounds all well and good, but truly we are fatigue managers, playing a small part in the adaptive process. We time the prescription of treatment and training in the hope of getting an optimal response, in terms of both creating fatigue and aiding in recovery.
Helping take athletes from “good” to “GREAT” centers on adaptation to the training and to the environment the athlete lives and operates within. This is where the psycho-neuro-endo-physiological chaos ensues, as all systems respond in a hopeful unison to allow learning, growth, and development within the athlete. Ultimately, the process should enable the athlete to compete at a higher level both psychologically and physiologically, having become a more robust and resilient organism attuned to a variety of tasks and stressors throughout their training history.
Back on the Ground – The Process and Participation
To truly “maximize” this “gain,” we must be collaborative with the other practitioners involved in the process1 because the human body can battle through countless stressors, continuing an upward trend of development, fighting fatigue, and coming back bigger, faster, and stronger than before. Just as a child learns the skills of mathematics through problem-solving, practice, and trial and error, an athlete’s body learns through problem-solving as well—and both the child and the athlete come out the other side more resourceful and productive within their environment2.
The process of adaptation is difficult, stressful, and damaging. As practitioners, we “play with fire” at times, in that we hold an athlete’s dreams, aspirations, and sometimes livelihood in our hands with our dosing of training or treatment. We cause trauma to connective tissues and joints, program the nervous system to function more optimally, and develop motor patterns and skills that allow for increased mastery and capacity. It can be a long and hard road, and many athletes are fortunate to have a care team of individuals at their disposal. But just as a grade school teacher should not give a student an answer, practitioners in the performance world cannot be too quick to aid in the recovery process, as the athlete’s body works to reverse fatigue and breakdown, returning stronger than before.
Time can heal most “wounds,” and if training load is appropriate, an athlete can recover between bouts and truly benefit from every hormetic dose of training/treatment that they are exposed to. But this time allotted must be adequate for the training to be truly preparatory and for the athlete’s body to learn to respond, grow, and flourish. The necessary time is based upon the variables of dosage (intensity, duration, frequency, mode, etc.), and the key to all of this lies in the ability for all practitioners to work in unison with one another, pushing or pulling the athlete in the same direction. Hence, the time and place of training, as well as the loading. When we try to pull an athlete in opposite directions or push too much, the load exceeds capacity too quickly and setbacks happen.
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Collaboration and communication are of paramount importance to the effective management of this process. Practitioners need to have a collective philosophy so that when there is a call to action and an athlete is in the care of one of the care team members, they have confidence in how to act and what to do.During the offseason, coaches shouldn’t intervene with the body’s inflammatory response to training, says @Cody__Roberts. Click To Tweet
For example, if an athlete is in an off-season training block or “preparatory” period, is the goal to provide “artificial” or therapeutic support to the athlete’s recovery? Should you provide aid for the physiological response (or the answer to the math equation that the grade-schooler is trying to decipher)? I would argue that, during this period, practitioners should not intervene with the inflammatory response to training, but rather allow the lifestyle and environment of that athlete, as well as the biological process, to happen naturally.
In situations such as those mentioned above, recovery means and modalities should take a back seat, because just as an athlete adapts to training stimulus, there is an adaptation or “law of diminishing returns” associated with recovery modalities. The adage or excuse that the athlete needs to “recover more” may simply mean that they need more time to allow readiness to return to a point where the training can be received and an adaptive process can occur. Otherwise, the cost of adaptation becomes too high, and instead of a hormetic dose of training, the training becomes poisonous and the body becomes resistant to the process in one of two ways:
- Physically (illness or injury)
- Psychologically (unmotivated or monotonous)
This should be understood and communicated by all parties: the coach prescribing the stress or stimulus, as well as the health care professionals working to keep the athlete feeling and performing their best. This can be a tough role to assume for any practitioner, especially one looking to serve and care for the athlete while caught in the trap of a “more is better” mentality.
When to ‘Recover More’
There will come a time of condensed competition, or potentially an intensive training camp, where recovery modalities (massage, hydrotherapy, EMS, cryotherapy, compression, etc.) will be necessary to help improve the recovery time of an athlete, and basically press “fast forward” on the potential physical and psychological effects of the training. Based on research and experience, practitioners are having a psychological impact on athletes with treatments of massage, compression, hydrotherapy, etc., as opposed to true physiological improvements of readiness (i.e., changes in countermovement jump performance, HRV, DC potential, or TMG readings)3.
That said, some can and do argue that psychological impact is physiological, and the brain controls all. So, regardless of true physical readiness, if the athlete feels psychologically ready to train or compete, then there is potential benefit regardless of where the athlete is in relation to fitness and fatigue. This is where the art and science of coaching come into play, and a coach must not become overly dependent on these psychologically beneficial recovery modalities. Instead, allow adequate time for healing and learning the biological and neuroendocrine response (adaptation).
At the end of the day, time is our most precious commodity and overwhelming the athlete with more time demands can be stressful and counterproductive. Remember that athletes are human beings, and the balance that we, as practitioners, work with is psycho-physiological. Consider:
Each are at play throughout the process, and the art of selling the program as well as developing trust are all too important to the effectiveness of the adaptive process.
Time, Place, and Tough Love
We’ve all heard and hopefully live by the adage of “training smarter, not harder.” Recognizing the training block and period of time an athlete is currently in, be effective and efficient with training prescription, which potentially means doing less. Maybe not less overall, as volume is a very important driver to adaptation, but potentially less intensity, less frequency, etc. Training should not be a test of how much the body can handle, but rather a process of learning and teaching the body, molding it as a teacher would a student, developing necessary skills and abilities to perform well when “test day” (game day) comes around.
An effective teacher does not constantly test their students’ abilities, but rather approaches them with patience, understanding, and sometimes a little tough love. The same can be said for the practitioners who must work together to coordinate the training plan, but then respond to the programming as the athlete does, modifying and adjusting based upon the psycho-physiological readiness of the athlete. A teacher continuing to provide assistance or, in this case, a practitioner continuing to prescribe “recovery methods,” is in a way similar to continuing to ride a bike with training wheels on: constantly being assisted through the process.
Research vs. Reality
Is there a law of diminishing returns to these various recovery modalities? In many studies that show the efficacy of treatments such as hydrotherapy and massage, the treatments are only performed in a small window of time, and we do not get the complete context of the effects after a year’s worth of massage or hydrotherapy treatments. Rather, we often get just the average of a four- to eight-week study.Training is treatment; treatment is training, says @Cody__Roberts. Click To Tweet
Do the effects of massage in aiding the recovery/adaptation process have a window of efficacy? I would argue that, just as it is with training, there are windows of adaptation as it relates to recovery modalities. Recovery modalities need to be:
- Dosed appropriately
To maximize their effectiveness, these modalities need to be done at the optimal time and place. Sound familiar? Training is treatment; treatment is training.
This understanding gives the practitioners time to be most effective, and allows for their role and purpose to be defined and guided by principles and a shared philosophy. The athletic trainer knows when to intervene and dose treatment appropriately, and what message to relay to the sport or strength coach. There are times when the massage therapist is highly involved, and times when we will not even use this “tool in the toolbox.”
This makes the strength coach and sport coach accountable as well, to where they know when to back off and when to push through based on the primary goals of the training block. Are we focused on general preparation, where volume is our primary focus and we can sacrifice intensity? Or are we concerned with achieving a certain intensity and not worried about volume or frequency?
There is context to all specific training prescriptions, but the generality in this situation is that we must be patient and we must work together. Trust and confidence in the abilities and prescription come over time, and with productive communication. This is where we are able to go “next level” with effective monitoring strategies that enable us to make daily/weekly modifications, developing a sense about the adaptive process, as well as objectivity.
But as always, it’s time and place, and we can’t put “the cart before the horse.” Teamwork and trust are the foundations to build upon, and periodization comes in the form of sound training prescription and principles. This is when an athlete can flourish, and what seemed like a slow, arduous process of adaptation now becomes a steady upward trend where everything moves and progresses in the right direction. This is when it becomes fun and easy, and rolls on all cylinders through athlete education and buy-in.
Summary and Solutions
There are countless stressors throughout life, and the daily pursuit of development and adaptation is the goal within sport performance. The thing to remember is that adaptation takes time, and sometimes that means we cannot check all the boxes of training stimulus throughout the week (sprinting, jumping, squatting, etc.). If we take a step back and reflect on our objective, and we collaborate on our training to all push/pull in the same direction, we will likely make much better progress than if we push/pull against one another. Sometimes, we may need to do less:
- Less recovery
- Less intensity
- Less volume
- Lower frequency, etc.
With the shared understanding that less is truly more effective, we cultivate an environment and promote a process to thrive instead of survive. This allows the body to learn to recover on its own, to problem solve, and be resourceful, without leaning on the crutches of effective/ineffective recovery strategies.The most effective involvement is collaborative, says @Cody__Roberts. Click To Tweet
As coaches, we can connect with one another, collaborate, and work together to educate athletes on an optimal lifestyle. Teaching athletes allows them to fail and learn through the process, because it is not what we do that matters, but more importantly, how the athletes grow and perform. We simply want our involvement to be effective, and the most effective involvement is collaborative.
I have personally seen these conversations unfold. The purpose and collaboration in planning, programming, and reacting to the athlete allows the lens to become clearer. These interactions with colleagues and athletes become enjoyable and flexible. We are allowed to truly listen and connect instead of dictating and directing. Just as with adaptation, it takes time, patience, and a little give and take from everyone and everything: Sometimes when you do less, you’re really doing more.
- Hoover, DL, VanWye, WR, and Judge, LW. “Periodization and physical therapy: Bridging the gap between training and rehabilitation.” Physical Therapy in Sport, 2016;18:1-20. doi:10.1016/j.ptsp.2015.08.003
- Brown, Peter C. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Harvard, 2018.
- Barnett, Anthony. “Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes.” Sports Medicine, 2006;36(9):781-796. doi:10.2165/00007256-200636090-00005
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